Summary

Review Price to be confirmed

Coming to Xbox One, Windows 8.1 (both versions tested)

What is Project Spark?

While the Xbox One has its share of sequels and big genre blockbusters, Microsoft also wants to position it as a platform for innovation, and nowhere more so than with Project Spark. Project Spark isn’t so much a game as a toolset for playing and creating games, where players can build worlds, fill them with objects and characters, then transform the whole she-bang into something other Project Spark users can play.

In a way, it’s Xbox One’s LittleBigPlanet, but Project Spark takes things to another level, both in terms of the types of game you can create and the detail you can go into. 2D or 3D, RPG, RTS or FPS, it doesn’t matter; Project Spark claims to do it all.

First Impressions of the Project Spark Beta

Some of this potential might not be obvious at first, particularly if you come in with the open beta. The first thing you’re likely try is Crossroads, a starter game which looks like a low-rent Fable, but actually incorporates the creative elements of Project Spark.

You don’t just play the game, but choose the kind of hero you want to play as too, the kind of enemy you want to fight and the locations where you’d like to fight them, and the game generates the world and customises it to your requests as you play. It’s a good, accessible way to get into Project Spark’s mindset, and you can save your results to share or replay, but at the same time it might leave you thinking: is this it?

Project Spark

Creating your world

It isn’t, but it’s only once you hit Create mode that you’ll really understand what Project Spark can do. At the moment, Create mode gives you two ways in. You can either start from scratch, form a landscape, paint it with ‘materials’ like flowery meadows or rocky ground and then populate it with characters and objects, or you can use the World Wizard to handle the grunt work for you.

With the wizard in control, you pick the type of landscape, make a few global adjustments to terrain, then choose a biome, a hero and a time of day. A biome, in case you’re wondering, is a kind of theme, and the beta gives you one to play with – woodland – which will carpet your landscape with meadows, grass, rocky peaks and trees. Other biomes are already available in DLC packs, with more to be released at launch.

Whether you start with a blank slate or a pre-generated landscape, you’ll need to spend a little time altering it. Here Project Spark provides simple tools for raising and lowering the landscape, making it smoother or more rugged, or even ‘cubifying’ it to build walls or simple structures. It’ll take a little practice, not to mention trial and error, before you get things right, and working on the horizontal as well as the vertical axis has its challenges.

All we can say is that Project Spark makes it about as easy as it could possibly be, and you can switch instantly between editing and play modes, allowing you to make a quick adjustment, then check out the results.

See also: The Sims 4 preview

Project Spark

Once you’ve built your landscape and painted it with materials, you’ll want to start filling it with stuff. The beta has a fairly limited library of buildings, objects, props and characters, all targeting a Fable-style fantasy adventure, but again this can be expanded with DLC packs.

These range from knights, knightly gear and master blacksmiths to creepy graveyard props and bile-vomiting zombies, so while you’re pretty much stuck with fantasy for now, you can at least tailor it in different directions – and we’re promised more packs for other genres once the game is fully released.

The secret of Project Spark’s potential is that each and every object, or ‘prop’ has a range of properties and – more importantly – a brain. The properties might determine how much health a hero or a monster has, or how much damage a sword does. Brains, meanwhile, control its behaviour, whether that means AI routines for a shambling zombie monster, the actions your hero performs when you press a specific button, or what you want to happen when the player gets within a certain range.

Project Spark

Getting to grips with Kode

This is where Project Spark gets really complicated. Brains use a visual programming syntax that Project Spark calls ‘kode’, where each line tells the game what conditions to look out for (e.g. when button A is pressed) and what to do when those conditions are met (e.g. make the hero jump).

It’s all relatively straightforward if you keep things simple, but you can also throw in modifiers, add in logical functions, like "And" or "Or", and tie in variables to track and control, say, the number of zombies that spawn when the player nears an ancient stone, or how many experience points are gained with every goblin slain. You can even flip objects between states using a system of pages, or create routines you can re-use for different objects.

Kode is both a strength and a weakness for Project Spark. On the one hand, it makes it a powerful and incredibly versatile tool – you can drill down and make objects or characters behave in just about any way you wish. On the other hand, it threatens to make Project Spark less accessible, particularly to those without any kind of programming background. You can easily spend an hour struggling to build, say, a zombie-spawning graveyard, and while Project Spark has tutorials to cover the very basics, you won’t learn all the intricacies of kode or the user-interface overnight.

See also: LittleBigPlanet 3 preview

Project Spark

The good news is that you’re not obliged to. Many of the objects you drop onto your world come with pre-baked brains, so you can drop a goblin onto your landscape and be pretty sure that, once they see a player, they’ll move towards them and attack. In addition, there’s an existing gallery of ready-made brains that can be attached to your objects, allowing you to think more about the type of behaviour you want, and less about the underlying kode.

All the same, Project Spark’s complexity will be a barrier for some would-be creators, and the user-interface isn’t always that transparent or intuitive. The existing tutorials do a half-decent job of putting you on the path towards creation, but then leave you rather abruptly without much guidance on how to do more. Some of the help text in the beta is broken, and we needed to rely on a mix of online instructions, forums and FAQs before we could make much headway on our nascent project.

Project Spark's Free to Play model

The other barrier will be Project Spark’s payment model. The beta, like the finished product, is free to play, but to create anything exciting or different you’ll need access to additional DLC, either sold separately or in themed packs. These can be purchased with credits earned by creating in-game, but we suspect many would-be creators will end up coughing up real money to buy tokens to redeem against the packs.

Project Spark

This is understandable – a free to play product needs a revenue stream, and at least you no longer have to own the content to play a game that uses it. All the same, it means that the more enthusiastic creators – the very people who will add long-term value to the game – will probably end up spending their own money to create. That’s bound to stick in the odd throat here and there.

That’s a concern, but we don’t have so many about Project Spark’s potential. While the community content gallery makes it slightly awkward to find the best or most interesting user-created worlds, you can already play games ranging from simplified Defence of the Ancients-style MOBAs to tower defence games, shoot-em-ups, third-person shooters and simple RPGs, complete with cinematics and custom soundtracks. There is a danger that Project Spark will lends itself most to creating generic variations on a theme, but we suspect that’s underestimating the ingenuity of the community that will – hopefully – grow around it.

Project Spark

Project Spark's Creative Cloud

Project Spark is also a good advert for Microsoft’s wider ecosystem. We’ve been working with Project Spark on the Xbox One console, a Windows 8.1 tablet and a Windows 8.1 desktop PC, and as everything is saved up in the Cloud, you can create on one device and play what you’ve made on another, or even switch between platforms to handle specific tasks. For instance, it’s not that easy to create a good landscape with the Xbox One’s controller, but use the touch UI on tablet or a mouse with a big-screen monitor and you’re away.

Xbox One sparkers will also be able to work with an iOS, Android or Windows tablet through Smartglass, though this feature isn’t enabled in the current beta. Early Xbox One adopters and the roughly seven people willing to buy Kinect separately can also use the motion sensor for some actions, or to record full-body emotes for your characters to use. The only thing we would say is that performance on Xbox One can be spotty, with more odd pauses and more lag than the Windows 8.1 version. It's early days yet, though, and nothing that can't be fixed pre-launch.

Verdict

Project Spark has some challenges ahead of it, not least balancing its enormous potential with its desire to be a more accessible game-making tool. The user-interface could be more intuitive and a little more hands-on help wouldn’t hurt, but there’s scope to fix both before release. What impresses most is how powerful the underlying kode is, and how far you can drill down and customise, not to mention how easy it is to create slick, professional-looking games. It’s going to take a little work to build the game of your imagination, but a whole lot less work than it would using any other route.

Read more: Best Xbox One Games

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